It has been suggested that the hippie philosophy shares many beliefs with the ancient Greek Cynics. In fact, as early as July 7, 1967, a Time Magazine article asserted that the 1960s hippie counterculture espoused many of the same ideals as the ancient Greek school of Cynicism, and even made specific note of the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope – an interesting character to be sure. However, while it is true that no one school of philosophical thought could be considered to be the hippie philosophy, it is absolutely true that the idealogical force behind the lifestyles of most hippies is very much in line with the ancient Greek school of Cynicism.
The Cynics believed that the purpose of life was to live a life of virtue (ie. a sort of personal moral excellence and well-being) which was in agreement with Nature. This was accomplished through living a simple life and rejecting conventional (ie. "conformative") desires for things such as wealth, power, fame, and material possessions. They believed that we are all children of the world, that the world belongs to us all equally, that most suffering is created by the misguided values which society holds (eg. greed, etc.), that the nature and purpose of society needs to be questioned and corrected, and that true happiness can ultimately be gained through rigorous training of the mind, the attainment of self-sufficiency, and by living in a way which is more natural for humans than the machine of modernized civilization offers.
The Cynics would have almost certainly asked the questions: "What is the purpose of society?", "What are we doing?", "Is this happiness?", "What is the point of this great experiment and where is it going?" All of these questions would appear to be quite in line with the sort of thinking that characterizes most individuals who would identify themselves as hippies.
Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly given the way society treats those whom it deems a threat to its nature, the word Cynic is derived from the Ancient Greek word kynikos, which means "dog-like", and the word kyôn, which means "dog". Many explanations have been offered for why the first Cynics were given this name, however, it is almost certain that it was meant as a type of insult. Cynics seemed to have been amused by the term as is evidenced in the words of Diogenes who said, "other dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them."
One commentator stated: "There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between friends and enemies."
In the late 18th and early 19th century, the term 'cynicism' came to be known as an attitude of scorn or jadedness, especially directed toward others as a general distrust of their professed motives. This modern definition would be in marked contrast to the ancient philosophy, which emphasized virtue and moral freedom through a liberation from convential social desires.
The founder of the school of Cynicism, is traditionally said to be Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BCE), who was a contemporary of Plato and a pupil of Socrates. His student, Diogenes of Sinope, is perhaps the most famous of the Cynics, likely due to his over-the-top antics. Diogenes was truly the most extreme of the Cynics.
Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412-323 BCE) was the son of a coin minter, who fled his home in Sinope after getting into some trouble for defacing the coinage. Shortly afterward, he travelled to Athens to study philosophy and challenge the established customs and values of society.
Diogenes taught by example and truly lived what he believed in. His goal was to demonstrate that wisdom and happiness can be found in the man who is independent from the constraints and false values of society, and that civilization itself was regressive. He maintained that all the artificialness of society was incompatible with happiness and that true morality necessitated a return to the simplicity of nature, saying, "Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods."
When asked where he came from, Diogenes was known to reply, "I am a citizen of the world," which was a radical statement in his time since a man's identity was intimately tied to his citizenship in a particular city-state.
Diogenes believed that human beings lived very artificially and hypocritically, and that they would do well to study the dog. His reasoning was that dogs live in the present, have no anxiety, and they have no use for the pretensions of abstract philosophy. He thought these things as well as the uncanny ability of a dog to instinctly discern between a friend and a foe were excellent virtues, noting that unlike humans who either dupe others or who are duped, dogs will give an honest bark at the truth.
He was very well known for his antics, and among his more notable ones were sleeping in a tub, rolling a tub for no apparent reason, urinating on people who insulted him, and pointing at people with his middle finger. He is said to have walked about in the daylight with a lamp "seeking an honest man"; he requested a stick to chase creatures away from his body once he had perished – his way of commenting on the value of burial customs; and he is even said to have insulted Alexander the Great. On one ocassion Alexander found the philosopher looking attentively at a pile of bones. Diogenes is reported to have said, "I am looking for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave." Another story relates that Alexander was thrilled to have met the philosopher and asked him if there was any favor he might grant him, whereby Diogenes replied, "Yes. Stand out of my sunlight."
Another story has it that there was a report out that Philip II was marching on Corinth, and the whole town was in a bustle. One man was furbishing arms, another was wheeling stones, and still others were patching walls and strengthening the battlement. Diogenes, having nothing to do, was so moved by the sight of all these men working so earnestly that he gathered up his philosopher's cloak and began rolling his tub up and down the Craneum. An acquaintance asked him why he was rolling the tub, to which Diogenes replied, “I do not want to be thought the only idler in such a busy multitude; I am rolling my tub to be like the rest,” which is an interesting way to say, “All the toils of civilized man are vain, and in fact, meaningless.”
In addition to Antisthenes and Diogenes of Sinope, other notable Cynics were Crates of Thebes, Onesicritus, Bion of Borysthenes, and Menippus of Gadara.
Cynicism was by far one of the most striking of all the Hellenistic philosophies. Much like the philosophies espoused by the hippie movement, it provided people with a sort of hope for a way in which to attain happiness and freedom in an age of great uncertainty. Although no official doctrine of Cynicism has ever existed, there are at least five core principles which can be summarized as:
- The purpose of life is to seek happiness and live in agreement with Nature.
- Happiness is attained through rigorous mental training, a positive attitude, and through becoming self-sufficient.
- The virtuous life is one in which the individual has freed their self from the influences of wealth, fame, power, greed, and other unnatural strivings, conventions and customs.
- Self-sufficiency is found in living a virtuous life. In other words, learning to live a simple life that is in agreement with Nature.
- The suffering in the world is ultimately caused by false judgments of value, which generate negative emotions and a vicious character. Another way to put it, is that concepts such as the high importance and value money is given in most modern societies are considered to be the major contributing factors to the overall decline in personal happiness and happiness as a whole.
So it was that the Cynics had little or no property – they were true minimalists. They held that a life lived in accord with nature required only the bare necessities, and thus they were perhaps some of the first civilized persons to dabble with the concept of “back to the earth” and a sort of primitivism. However, none of this necessarily meant that a Cynic would completely retreat from society, on the contrary, Cynics tended to live in full view of the public. The job of the Cynic philosopher was to evangelize humanity, as the watchdog of man, and thus they would colorfully point out the error of civilized humanity's ways while simultaneously leading them, by example, toward what the Cynic considered to be the ideal life of happiness where the individual was free from the illusions of commonly pursued social values, and in which he was self-sufficient and attuned with Nature.
Obviously not all Cynics were as extreme, or rather unconcerned with the way others took their antics, such as Diogenes, and the plethora of various hippies would be much the same. Not many hippies would think that urinating on someone who insults them is exactly a good way to go about changing the opinions of others, or that defacating in a theater, such as Diogenes is reported to have done, would somehow enlighten their fellow man. However, there are definite parallels between the ethics of the hippie counterculture and that of the Cynics, and it would seem quite self-evident that Cynicism has indeed been a philosophical undercurrent of the hippie movement.
Just as the Cynics, hippies come in many flavors, and all should not be lumped into the same categories of various extremist elements, or even into the exact same philosophical categories as many hippies are typically lumped by their contemporaries. For instance, there are Marxist-socialist hippies and there are also those with a more Libertarian economic philosophy, yet there are still others who really don't espouse an economic philosophy as they are much more like the Cynics in viewing money and property as being detrimental to the well-being of mankind, and ultimately the cause of much unhappiness.
The hippie philosophy has adopted many different philosophical viewpoints and should never be considered to be of any one, but it would seem that all hippies are somewhat cynical.
Diogenes Laërtius, v. VI. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, 2nd edition.
Diogenes Laërtius, v. II. (1925). Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Loeb Classic Library, ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard Univeristy Press.
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Long, A.A. (1996), in Bracht Branham, R.; Goulet-Cazé, Marie-Odile. The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy, University of California Press.
Cynicism, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition. 2006. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Bertrand Russell. A History of Western Philosophy. Simon and Schuster.
Dudley, Donald R. (1937). A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the 6th Centruy A.D., Cambridge.
Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones.